A new study from the Ponemon Institute indicates that people are increasingly aware of online consumer privacy issues, but also overwhelmingly feel that they do not have the tools to protect themselves and are looking to government to intervene.
The study, entitled “Privacy and Security in a Digital World,” asked a diverse sample of 650 adults from across the United States about their sentiments toward various aspects of big tech platforms. Consumers indicated that their general trust in online services has dropped in recent years, with particularly sharp increases in concerns about search engines and social media platforms. Very few trust websites in general with collection and sharing of personal information, but only about half seem to be fully aware of the personal protection options that are available to them.
The rising consumer privacy storm
The lead item in the report is the level of concern about consumer privacy when using devices and online services in general. 86% of respondents are concerned about data privacy when using free online services; that number only drops to 69% when using devices and 66% when shopping online or using paid services (such as rideshare or food delivery).
The biggest consumer privacy concerns are directed at social media and search engines. Social media sites are the least trusted type of website among respondents (61% indicating distrust). The next closest category is online shopping sites (52%). When asked if they believe sites are sharing and selling personal data with third parties, 92% believed search engines were doing so. 78% are convinced that social media sites are selling personal data.
In terms of specific consequences of data sharing, respondents were most commonly worried about violation or loss of civil liberties (56%) or theft of identity or financial information as the result of a data breach (54%). Relatively few (25%) report being concerned about marketing abuses, but there is nevertheless strong sentiment against the use of personal information for targeted marketing. 73% want the ability to “opt out” of receiving ads connected to specific topics, and 68% do not want online services to be able to serve ads based on the contents of their communications. 64% do not want to be profiled unless they grant permission. Additionally, 64% felt that targeted ads based on searches or publicly available information are “creepy.”
High awareness of problems, low awareness of solutions
In spite of these strong sentiments in favor of consumer privacy, end users are often not aware of the personal protection measures that are already available to them. Consumers have a tendency to believe that personal data is always being collected when they are online: 96% believe that devices collect email addresses and 90% believe that browser and search histories are recorded, and 78% believe devices collect payment information and photos. 50% feel that they never have control over personal data, and 54% say they do not attempt to limit the amount of data collected on them. 45% are not aware of device privacy controls. Of those that are aware, only 60% make use of them on computers and 56% on smartphones.
Only 19% of respondents said that they actively try to limit information sharing and maintain consumer privacy across all sites and devices that they use. 27% say that they do so selectively. Only 5% believe that there are no consumer privacy protections in place whatsoever, but 73% believe that it is not possible to disable tracking activities.
Though consumers clearly need more education about available privacy protections, use of these measures is nevertheless up overall from previous years. The research points to small increases in the use of device data sharing settings and authentication controls.
The solutions consumers want
Dr. Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of Ponemon Institute, said, “This research revealed much of the tension surrounding digital privacy today. Based on my polling experience, these findings make a compelling case for the important role identity protection products and services play in protecting consumers’ privacy. The study shows that many consumers are alarmed by the uptick in privacy scandals and want to protect their information, but don’t know how to and feel like they lack the right tools to do so.”
Given the overall low awareness of personal protection measures, it is not surprising that a majority of consumers (60%) see government involvement as the answer. 34% want strong government oversight as the sole solution, while 26% would like to see a mix of government intervention and industry self-regulation. Tom Kelly, President and CEO of ID Experts, expresses something of the view of that latter group: “It is absolutely true that unfortunately many consumers don’t have the knowledge and are frankly ill-equipped to take back control of their digital privacy from ubiquitous, free online platforms. But if we don’t think consumers can handle the difficulty of even the most basic aspects of their own digital privacy, then is the solution to just say they should be considered easy prey for those exploiting that weakness? We don’t take that approach to regulated industries like fast food, smoking or soft drinks, so why would we exclude big tech for any reason? … I believe that in addition to more stringent laws and regulations to protect consumers, that there is an urgent need for privacy tools that are easy to use and cover all the bases in addressing the complexities of tracking, surveillance, data collection and hard to understand policies.”
Consumers see online service providers (54%) as being most responsible for consumer privacy protection. 40% believe the federal government should be primarily responsible; only 9% wanted state and local government regulation to take point in this area.
In spite of the general lack of awareness of existing privacy protection measures, 45% say they should personally be most accountable for protection of their personal information. 42% would like to have a free online tool that helps to protect their privacy; 31% would be willing to pay for one.